'The smart device market is exploding. Smart home kits for retrofitting “non-smart” houses have become cheaper.
Earlier this year, Apple released the HomePod speaker, the company’s response to dominant smart devices Google Home and Amazon Echo. Amazon, too, is expanding its lineup. Recently, it debuted the Amazon Echo Look, promising to make users more stylish.
All of these smart devices are equipped with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant, which allows users to interact with their devices hands-free. These devices, which vow to make your life easier, have another thing in common: They often have microphones on all the time to listen for your requests.
As a scholar of rhetoric and technology, I study how people make sense of new technological innovations. My research outlines several reasons why people might find these smart devices equipped with an always-on microphone attractive as well as unsettling.
First, smart devices offer exceptional convenience at an unprecedentedly low cost. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google all pitch their products as ways to make users more efficient by outsourcing tasks. This isn’t new. Wealthier people have long relied on the labor of others to manage their households and workspaces. Smart home technologies promise similar effects. They can automate chores, including vacuuming, grocery shopping and even cooking.
Artificial intelligence, algorithms and automation now execute tasks for those who can afford smart devices. As a result, more and different people may take advantage of a digital assistant than would use, or could afford, a human assistant.
For example, hands-free technologies may increase autonomy for the elderly and individuals with disabilities. Scholars are investigating how smart devices can support “universal design,” a way of making spaces and activities accessible and convenient for people of all abilities. Smart home systems can assist people with physical or cognitive impairments by automating crucial activities and services, such as opening and closing doors, or contacting medical professionals.
Such systems may offer people increased autonomy in their homes. For instance, in Boulder, Colorado, Imagine! Smart Homes are equipped with smart home systems so that people with cognitive disabilities “may remain in more independent and natural settings.” Interviews with elderly users suggest that technologies that monitor a person’s health and movement around the home can help people “aging-in-place.”'
Read more: Do I Want an Always-on Digital Assistant Listening in All the Time?
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